Business, Headline

8 South Asians among Insider’s 100 People Transforming Business

The change makers come from areas ranging from Diversity Equity Inclusion, to Sustainability to Emerging Tech

Eight South Asian business leaders figure in Business Insider’s 2022 list of 100 leaders across 10 industries who are driving unprecedented change and innovation.

“The T100 does more than highlight career milestones; it features the power players behind the most significant trends of the year,” it said noting, “During the past 12 months, business leaders faced myriad challenges including inflation, a polarized political climate, and war in Ukraine.”

Featured in the Diversity Equity Inclusion category is Anish Melwani, CEO and Chairman, LVMH North America.

“What Melwani, does has ripple effects in the fashion world,” Insider wrote. “Over the past year, the chief doubled down on supporting designers and creatives of color across multiple portfolio brands.” The move is likely to encourage competitors to follow suit, multiple fashion analysts and bloggers told Insider.

“I think critics who are talking about diversity and inclusion as window dressing are usually responding to too much talk and not enough action. And I think our strategy to avoid that is to do the opposite,” Melwani said.

In September, LVMH served as the first title sponsor for Harlem’s Fashion Row, a New York City organization supporting designers of color. The partnership consisted in LVMH and brands like Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co, and Moet Hennessy offering their expertise through a mentorship program, as well as grants to emerging fashion creatives of color.

The luxury group has several other internship and mentorship activities, including with the Fashion Scholarship Fund via the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, and recently committed to investing in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as a way to further advance DEI efforts.

In addition, Melwani has worked to diversify the top echelons at its brands. People of color now comprise more than 30% of leadership positions in North America, excluding the C-suite, according to a company spokesperson. He wants to continue diversifying C-suite leadership, in line with corporate goals set for 2026.

“One of the challenges in our sector is if we limit our recruiting to people who have vast experience, the sector doesn’t get more diverse because the people are who they are today, right? You have to widen the aperture of where you seek great talent and are willing to take some risks on people,” he said.

Sustainability section features Vaishali Nigam Sinha, Chair, ReNew Foundation and Chief Sustainability, CSR and Communications Officer, ReNew Power.

Sinha started her career in investment banking. But after 16 years in the industry, she found her calling in something far different — philanthropy. She founded the online-donation platform iCharity in India and, from there, feels as though she “accidentally landed” in the green-energy and sustainability industry.

“It really prepared me as far as philanthropy is concerned,” Sinha told Insider about her experience in banking. “We all come to a stage in our lives where that part of us takes center stage. Even when I was in New York, I really felt like contributing to a lot of issues which India and people here were facing.”

Sinha’s focus on making the world a better place brought her to her position as the chief sustainability, corporate-social-responsibility, and communications officer of the renewable-energy company ReNew Power. She’s also the founding chair of the ReNew Foundation.

Over the past decade, ReNew Power has set up wind farms, solar farms, hydro projects, and around-the-clock generators, to the point that the sustainable-energy company now supplies 1.8% of India’s energy, Sinha said.

“We raised global funds. It’s really, I would say, a perfect example of really putting global North to global South kind of model in practice,” she said. “And it’s really been quite amazing how we’ve been able to build the infrastructure in remote parts of our country and around our sites, engage the local people, and provide employment.”

Sinha is an advocate for female participation and leadership in the fight against climate change, and she hopes to see ReNew Power’s work spread across the world.

“I think the boundaries for climate change, for the global energy transition, are melting,” she said. “As we look around us, there are humongous opportunities for us to be able to produce energy and make it fungible from one geography to the other. And we see ourselves taking the lead there.”

Also featured in Sustainability is Ali Zaidi, National Climate Advisor, White House. Zaidi who has served on President Joe Biden’s climate team since it was founded in 2020 was promoted to his current role in September.

The highest-ranking Pakistani American in the administration has helped shape Biden’s strategy that connects the climate crisis to social and racial justice, public health, infrastructure, and jobs.

“We can build the politics for climate action if we use that climate action to tackle multiple crises at a time,” Zaidi told Ozy in an interview last year. “If we use it to eat into injustice, to spur economic activity, to build worker power, the popularity of that climate action goes up.”

Now he’s tasked with shepherding the rollout of the $369 billion in climate funding in the Inflation Reduction Act alongside John Podesta, who was named in September senior advisor to the president on clean energy.

Zaidi’s path to the White House began in Karachi, Pakistan, which his family left for small-town Pennsylvania when he was 5. Zaidi earned a law degree from Georgetown University and did stints in academia, at a law firm, and as the chair of climate policy and finance for the state of New York.

Emerging Tech section features Akshay Kothari, Chief Operating Officer, Notion, which has become both a popular workplace-productivity tool and a social-media phenomenon over the past two years. The $10 billion startup’s total users quadrupled to more than 20 million over the past 12 months. At the same time, its tools have become a staple for TikTok influencers and everyday users looking to organize their personal lives.

Kothari, a product exec turned jack-of-all-trades, has been instrumental in guiding the company through its rapid growth. “I spent a decade building products, and the job I have at Notion was everything but product. I was responsible for really building out our foundational and our business teams,” Kothari said, explaining his mission to hire experienced leaders for Notion’s sales, marketing, product, human resources, finance, and other essential teams.

In some ways, it was a challenge to start teams in business units he hadn’t worked in before, Kothari said, but it made it simpler. It forced him and his team to think about how best to serve customers and build practices around that, he said.

The toughest challenge he’s faced at Notion was in early 2021, when it got a huge influx of users, which was spurred by it going viral on TikTok and almost took down the company’s servers. Under Kothari’s leadership, the company took a six-month break from any new product features to focus 100% on improving its infrastructure. “The investments we made during that time also helped build the company culture,” he said.

Notion’s next phase of growth is focused on making it easier for large companies to use it for workplace collaboration. Kothari is focused on making sure Notion’s growing community of users is happy with the product and continues to pull it into their workplaces. New marketing ideas, like its recent pop-up in San Francisco, are part of this strategy, he said.

“Notion has very much sort of become the default asynchronous collaboration platform,” he said. “Our most exciting days are very much ahead of us.”

Featured in the Shopping category is Dilip Kumar, Vice President of Physical Retail and Technology, Amazon. He is in charge of Amazon’s futuristic “Just Walk Out” technology which allows shoppers to pick out what they want and leave the store without standing in line at a checkout counter. Instead, their accounts are automatically debited for the purchase.

While Just Walk Out got its start in a roughly 10,000-square-foot Amazon Go store in early 2020, the technology now functions in stores that vary in size.

“Our technology services are operational in locations ranging from small-store formats to full-size grocery stores to locations that cater to high customer volumes, like airport and stadium stores,” Kumar told Insider.

In February, Amazon opened an entire Whole Foods store in Washington, DC, with Just Walk Out. Amazon has also installed the tech at its AmazonGo convenience stores and sports stadiums.

Kumar also oversees related projects at Amazon. They include Amazon One, which allows customers to scan their palm to enter a Just Walk Out location or pay, and Amazon Dash Carts, a smart shopping cart that keeps track of what consumers put in their carts as they shop and allows them to skip the checkout line.

“These technologies can improve the shopping experience by saving time and removing friction from shopping trips,” he said. Kumar said he doesn’t “have a crystal ball” to see into the future of retail. But he anticipates “the retail industry will continue to adopt machine learning and computer-vision-based technologies that offer customers ease and convenience.”

Shopping section also features Amish Tolia, Co-CEO and Cofounder, Leap, a retail-as-a-service startup that secures leases, designs stores, and manages operations for brands in exchange for a monthly fee and percentage of sales.

As cofounder and co-CEO, Tolia is always looking for ways that brands can use data to ensure that their digital and physical retail channels are working together in complementary ways.

“For the past 10-plus years, there’s been a lot of conversation around the death of retail,” Tolia said. “We’ve seen that as more of the reinvention of retail, or the rebirth of retail.”

“We know that consumers want to be in person,” Tolia added. “The lion’s share of spend is still taking place offline.”

Leap was founded in mid-2018. Today, about 55 brands — including Ring Concierge, Naadam, and Mack Weldon — are on the platform. Leap operates more than 80 stores across 11 markets in the US. It raised a $50 million Series B in January.

Tolia said that Leap’s tech-powered solutions are especially relevant now as platforms like Shopify have lowered the barrier to entry for online sellers.

As these sellers “continue to scale their businesses online, it’s without question that they’re going to need to address the physical-retail channel to meet the consumer where the consumer is,” Tolia said.

“In today’s world, it’s really important that those brands think about every channel — including that of retail — and address every channel in a way that provides them the greatest amount of flexibility.”

Rajatesh Gudibande, President and Cofounder, GraphWear Technologies Inc, a biotech startup, is one of the two South Asians featured in the new Readers’ Choice section.

Gudibande is pioneering the first no-blood, no-needle glucose-monitoring test that could be revolutionary for the 422 million people with diabetes around the world who must subject themselves to daily finger pricks to monitor their glucose levels.

Unlike the traditional finger-stick monitor — which Gudibande previously said could be painful, lead to infections, and be inaccessible to some — GraphWear’s tech uses sensors to monitor glucose molecules on a patient’s skin.

In addition to diabetes, Gudibande, who holds a master’s degree in nanotechnology from the University of Pennsylvania, said his startup’s tech could eventually be used to monitor other health issues, such as high cholesterol, heart attacks, and cancer risk.

Established in 2015, GraphWear has raised $25.2 million total in VC funding, according to Crunchbase. The startup’s most recent raise was a $20.5 million Series B round in October 2021 that was led by Mayfield Fund.

Chronic-care management is important to Gudibande, who contracted cerebral malaria in rural India but was misdiagnosed with chickenpox and suffered severe complications. He said his experience was difficult even while having better access to healthcare than most others in his situation.

“I had access to doctors and medications, but the true missing piece was the absence of labs — I saw that the logistics of healthcare were clunky, and so I set out to make a change,” Gudibande told Authority Magazine in an interview last year.

“Finding an alternative, noninvasive healthcare solution has allowed us to unlock a whole new outlook on what we can do to better people’s health,” he said.

Nitin Gupta, CEO and Founder, Beans.ai is also featured in the Readers’ Choice section. For him helping people navigate the last 100 yards of their journey is personal.

While visiting from India, Gupta’s mother had a medical emergency at his apartment. “The paramedics hit my property about 15 minutes before they found my apartment,” he told Insider.

His mom received treatment with just a minute to spare. “It was surprising that in a developed country like the US, the first responders don’t have the data” to find where they need to go, he said.

“They actually have this thick paper binder in every fire truck with less than a tenth of the relevant data that they flip through as they’re going to an emergency.”

While the stakes are much lower, delivery professionals face the same challenges at sprawling apartment complexes and labyrinthine office buildings. By crowdsourcing information about the built environment, Beans.ai is helping people get where they need to go.

Gupta has been creative about where he gets his information. The company has paid delivery drivers for maps of apartment complexes and partnered with fire departments to digitize those clunky binders.

In addition to its contracts with government agencies, including postal services, it helps power between 2 million and 3 million daily deliveries on a variety of platforms, including InstaCart.

Read: White House Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi Among 8 South Asian Americans in the Insider’s List of ‘100 People Transforming Business’ (November 17, 2022)

Fresh off a $17 million Series A financing round, Gupta said his firm is rounding the corner into profitability. The firm is also developing its business with the real-estate and telecommunications industries.

After that, there’s no shortage of spaces with confounding layouts. “Hotels have the same problem, hospitals have the same problem, universities have the same problem,” Gupta said.

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